The Hulu show sees the comic and actress put her more criticized self in the past.
Amy Schumer is unquestionably a pioneer of female comedy. Inside Amy Schumer took smart, incisive, absurdist satire that was created by a woman, about what women go through, and put it on the map — and it successfully appealed to more than just the demographic of its creator. The show premiered in 2013, a time in which the work of people like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler had primed audiences for female comedic voices, and yet the chorus of “women aren’t funny” still sounded loudly from the rafters. Flash forward almost a decade, and even though women are not necessarily commonplace in the comedy landscape, they’re far more seen than before, and Schumer should get credit for her part in that. But after stumbles at the pinnacle of her career led to a few years of relative silence, she’s returned with a new series that showcases her strengths. Hulu’s Life and Beth, a mumblecore-esque show, is perhaps Schumer at both her most self-aware, and most endearing — a worthy comeback just ahead of her Oscar-hosting gig later this month.
For how formative Inside Amy Schumer was, its title was almost a prophecy. As her star rose, her work became more and more insular and self-referential, until we got to the self-absorbed fever pitch of 2015’s Trainwreck and her standup specials Live from the Apollo and The Leather Special, which came out around the same time. The Amy Schumer voice became a co-mingling of white feminism and discussions of her own fame, which are fair topics — but seemed to become the sole focus of her work. She was both fanatically praised and wildly dogged, and her brushes with criticisms made things worse. In the years since, aside from 2018’s widely-panned I Feel Pretty and some forays into reality television, she’s largely receded from the public view. But it feels like within that time away, she mined a deeper well.
If you’re a fan of shows like Master of None, One Mississippi, and Togetherness, the pacing of Life and Beth will feel just right. It’s an ambling show about the way life takes a different path than what we expect or even plan for, and how we must find ourselves within that ambiguity. It’s a relatively basic, if not played out, concept, but for once the insistence on it being about Amy makes it work. Part of the reason is that for the first time since she’s become a household name, Schumer really feels like she’s letting herself play a character. Beth is a wine rep in New York City, sorting through love gained and lost. She and Amy are similar in tone, but the character isn’t just a vehicle for Schumer’s problematic feminism and vanity. Beth is fleshed out in all of her own vulnerability and nuance, and with her own set of unlikable and likable qualities. She is messy, dishonest, and lost when her character lies to get what she wants, but she’s also sentimental, bold, and smart when she eventually tries to make things right with the people she loves. There’s still plenty of Amy in there; there are jokes about fingering and periods and weight. But Schumer isn’t the butt of them, she’s making them without being at her own expense — and that’s what many of us have always wanted from her.
Perhaps Schumer’s portrayal of Beth feels more earnest than her other turns in fictional roles because it was loosely based on her own experiences. Like Beth, Schumer also grew up in Long Island, weathered a change in economic status as a kid, and she has openly discussed her husband, Chris Fischer, being on the autism spectrum, which feels mirrored in Michael Cera’s performance as Beth’s love interest, John. From that closeness, Schumer is able to make the fictionalized aspects sing a bit more than she did when just trying to make pure fictional commentary on what it means to be a slutty, drunk thirty-something in Trainwreck. Prior roles have seen Schumer thrust her Amy-ness into the character as a life raft to keep her roles afloat, when really it was an iceberg dragging them down. By letting Beth draw from Amy’s less known experiences instead of relying on the brand she’s been associated with, we finally get to see the comic and actress take her time to make a character feel real.
This isn’t to say that Life and Beth will be a smash hit — mumblecore television is usually a niche that’s only beloved by those with the taste for it. It’s somewhat middling, with genuinely funny zingers peppered through a lot of overly emotional plot salt. And for all of Schumer’s growth, there is still room for improvement: there is an effort to include more voices besides her own, but as soon as actors like Yamaneika Saunders, Susannah Flood, and Lavar Walker provide scenes with the levity and texture they’re capable of, the story moves back to the show’s namesake. In that sense, the series can feel similar to Schumer’s old work at times. It’s a dynamic that a similar show, Bridget Everett’s HBO Max vehicle Somebody Somewhere, has a better understanding of. The shows are eerily similar, down to the use of a loved one’s death as an entry point, a return home to sort through residual trauma, and the inclusion of comedic genius Murray Hill. Somebody Somewhere is more successful, partially because Everett isn’t saddled with Schumer’s narrative past to have to grow beyond. Regardless, Life and Beth shows that Amy Schumer isn’t letting that narrative define her — and the more intentional she is in that journey, the better.